Bill Vigars had to keep up with Terry on the road and finished the summer in the best shape of his life. Photo: Gail Harvey; Insets: A frame-by-frame demonstration of Terry’s running gait captured by filmmaker John Simpson; Author Bill Vigars. Photo: Terry Fox foundation/ Courtesy of Sutherland house books
The Inside Story of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope
In a Q&A about 'Terry & Me,' former publicist Bill Vigars, 77, says he sobbed as he wrote about Fox and his 1980 cancer fundraiser / BY Kim Hughes / August 31st, 2023
The story of Terry Fox has been told countless times across multiple mediums. Yet, only three people witnessed the day-in, day-out toil and joy of Fox’s famed Marathon of Hope in 1980: his younger brother Darrell Fox, who tagged along as something of a comic foil; his best friend Doug Alward, who drove the beater van that ferried their maps and clothes from town to town as Fox ran; and Bill Vigars.
As Vigars, 77, writes in his memoir, Terry & Me: The Inside Story of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, “I had been sent as an emissary for the Ontario division of the Canadian Cancer Society, which had almost turned its back on Terry’s offer to raise funds for the organization. When I first joined up with him, Terry Fox was fifty-eight days into … running across Canada on his artificial leg to raise money for cancer research.”
Though he was part of the story as it unfolded — serving as the Marathon’s official link to the Canadian Cancer Society, as well as its de facto publicist, project manager, gopher and confidant — with Terry & Me, Vigars puts the spotlight on Fox, highlighting his almost otherworldly grit as he ran an astonishing 26 miles every day for 143 days.
That remarkable spirit carried the Marathon of Hope from St. John’s, N.L. to Thunder Bay, Ont., where it abruptly ended on Sept. 1, 1980, when the cancer that claimed Fox’s right leg was found to have spread to his lungs. He died the following June, one month shy of his 23rd birthday, and without achieving his goal of traversing Canada from coast to coast.
But the late athlete’s legacy is very much alive in the annual Terry Fox Run — this year, taking place on Sept. 17 — which inspires millions globally to run (or walk or wheel) in a non-competitive charity event that, to date, has raised nearly a billion dollars for cancer research since its 1981 inception.
The British Columbia-based Vigars — who travelled with the Marathon of Hope through Quebec and, notably, Ontario, where the run seized the attention of the public and mainstream media — tells Zoomer that his memoir is both an effort to add more detail to one of Canada’s most celebrated and cherished true-life stories and “to portray [Terry] as a human being, and to show his sense of humour.
“He would have been very uncomfortable being portrayed as a hero,” the affable Vigars says, describing the intimate tone of his conversational, 43-years-in-the-making book, co-authored with journalist Ian Harvey. “People might know about Terry Fox. But when they read this book, they will know Terry Fox.” In a Q&A about Terry & Me, Vigars talks about weeping as he relived the run when he was writing, whether Fox had a premonition that he wouldn’t finish the Marathon of Hope and how the runner could not have foreseen the indelible impact he made on Canadian society and cancer research.
Kim Hughes: Give me five adjectives to describe Terry Fox.
Bill Vigars: Selfless. Determined. Truthful. Funny. A friend. And I insisted on using a smiling picture of Terry on the cover of the book, because people so often remember him with that look of pain as he was running. But to me, that face was Terry Fox. Kind and gentle.
KH: You write that part of your motivation with this memoir was to keep Terry’s memory and message alive. Was it also for personal posterity?
BV: The book is about Terry. I had tried to write it over the years and just couldn’t. But a part of me wondered why I wasn’t doing it. I had a duty to write this book as one of the few still alive who knows the story. At the time of the Marathon of Hope, Darrell was just 17. Doug is very reclusive. It became a matter of writing the book while I still could. It took me 43 years to get talked into this. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being called an author.
KH: Did you keep a journal during the Marathon of Hope?
BV: No. I had nothing. When people asked if I was keeping a diary I would say, ‘No, I’m making a movie in my head and I’m never going to forget it.’ Luckily, I had Terry’s diary — he did keep a journal on the run — so I could go back and reference that. Honestly, I can’t find my car keys most days, but I can tell you exactly what happened on [Toronto’s] Danforth Ave., where we stopped in July 1980.
There are very few pictures of me with Terry during the Marathon because when the media would show up, I would say, ‘Those three guys are the story. Take their photograph.’ Only [press photographer] Gail Harvey really captured us when she joined us at the French River Trading Post. Over the years, I spoke about Terry or the Marathon of Hope virtually every day. He is part of my life. I have done this to the very best of my ability, using memory and as much research as I could. And I wrote it as though Terry was standing over my shoulder. That’s why I reached out to other people [such as surviving OPP officers who escorted Fox on busy highways], sometimes cold-calling people to verify stories and share recollections. It really helped to fill in details.
KH: What was the hardest thing to get right with this book?
BV: I guess working through the emotions of reliving things that happened. There were several times I was sobbing while writing. I would come out and sit on the couch … [Vigars chokes up] and my wife would come out and put a hand on my shoulder and say, ‘You’re doing a good thing. Just keep going.’ That was both the hardest thing and the most rewarding. And there were so many things I had to get right. I wanted members of Terry’s family to be happy when they read it.
KH: You must look back on the logistical hurdles of executing the Marathon of Hope in an era without GPS, cell phones or social media, and wonder how different it might have been had it happened today.
BV: I don’t think it would have been what it was. Bigger maybe. Our way of communicating with the public was through radio. One advantage I had going in was, I was a small-town guy who had been involved in the community, so I knew how small communities worked. I also understood radio, having worked at one at age 18. And everything changed completely when we entered Ontario. People did find out about him, and they found out mostly through radio. I’ll be 78 on Sept. 20, and looking back, it was kind of a miracle.
KH: As you stress in the book, Terry literally ran a marathon every day for five months, often in serious pain. Did he know, or intuit on some level, that cancer would ultimately claim him, and did that motivate his extraordinary physical output?
BV: Darrell, Doug and I worried a lot about his enlarged heart, which was not congenital but was caused by the drugs he took. That was higher on our worry list. Then, at the Scarborough Civic Centre, he made his speech [in July 1980] and said to the crowd, ‘If I can’t finish the run, you have to finish it for me.’ Both Darrell and I think he knew something was wrong long before he told us. But he was so determined and focused that nothing was going to stop him. Not his parents, no one. He did not set out to be a martyr. But he was going to give everything he could to [raise money for] kids with cancer.
KH: It occurred to me reading your book that the only other death to inspire such profound and palpable national mourning in Canada was Gord Downie’s. Do you see parallels there?
BV: I do. People were devasted losing Gord Downie. And he also fought his battle publicly, as Terry did.
KH: What would Terry have made of this book?
BV: At every stage, I wrote this thinking about whether Terry would agree with it. Some stories were funny, some a bit off-colour. My process was, I’d get my wife to read something and she would say, ‘Nope, you can’t tell that story.’ In that case, I’d send it to another friend. If I got two responses that I shouldn’t tell a story, it was out. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. Many individuals I didn’t name because they’re not alive to defend themselves and I didn’t want their families to read something bad.
KH: I think it’s fair to say that had Terry Fox lived, he would have been blown away by this thing he started, the money raised in his name, the global impact he has had.
BV: In a million years, I don’t think he would have imagined what the Marathon of Hope became or what his legacy would be. I mean, it has swept China, a country without much of a fundraising culture. There are runs in Australia, New Zealand, England and in Canada I give credit to volunteers who, for 43 years, have organized the run. Plus, teachers use Terry in school curriculum in so many ways. That’s another reason I wrote the book. I wanted to portray him as a human being, and to show his sense of humour. He would have been very uncomfortable being portrayed as a hero. People might know about Terry Fox but when they read this book, they will know Terry Fox.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity